Last week at MadBlog, my “Best Spots of the Year” column ended with a mention of empty chairs. Yup -- I suggested that the year’s winningest commercial, Chrysler’s “Half-Time in America,” inadvertently led Clint Eastwood to commit his unhinged monologue involving an innocent seating unit at the 2012 Republican National Convention.
Here in part deux, my nominee for worst spot of the year also comes from powerhouse agency Wieden + Kennedy, and also involves -- wait for it -- empty chairs!
Given that everything W+K produces is sophisticated and beautiful in some way, my contender for worst is hardly as ugly, screeching, or annoying as your typical late-night, low-budget spot. (Yes, Miracle Bra, I’m talking about you.)
No -- this is another stratosphere of bad, entirely. It’s highest-form-of-propaganda bad, drink-your-own-Kool-Aid, worst-form-of-humblebragging bad. Indeed, who could have predicted that when launching its first-ever TV commercial, Facebook could achieve such fall-flat-on-its-face badness? In trying to be humble, it comes off as obtuse and arrogant.
A little background: In the beginning, before tech platforms were our leading brands, they tended to eschew television advertising like the plague. Indeed, the idea of a “broadcast” was seen as a remnant of the Dark Ages, soon to be replaced by everything digital.
Then, a few years back, Google ran a spot on the Super Bowl, of all places, and hell didn’t freeze over. Rather, the company got raves. The commercial was modest, charming, and entirely rooted in the brand. It never strayed from being a simple product demo. By showing some simple search terms being typed into a Google window, it cleverly conveyed the arc of a love story -- from first meeting to buying baby equipment. The genius was in suggesting a full-blown human journey in a few keystrokes.
Now, of course, tech platforms have become major TV advertisers. And after a troubling IPO, Facebook released its first TV spot in October, to “honor” its one billion users. The result, “The Things that Connect Us,” is a 90-second commercial created very much in the classic Wieden style, an artfully designed manifesto with a poetic voiceover and haunting music.
The director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, delivers visuals that crackle with magical realism. There’s unexpected beauty in every frame. The message, however, is a real head-scratcher, especially for any of the billion or so regular users of Facebook.
It’s always fun to look over your shoulder at someone’s profile -- after all, Facebook is a service for voyeurs. But nothing in the spot is recognizable. Rather, it features an almost entirely analog world, with a female announcer likening Facebook to various inanimate objects.
"Chairs,” she says. “Anyone can sit on a chair, and if the chair is large enough, they can sit down together and tell jokes or make up stories or just listen. Chairs are for people, and that’s why chairs are like Facebook."
Sadly, this is not a parody from The Onion. (Although the spot immediately fostered a ton of parodies, including one that graphically substituted “toilets” for chairs.) The announcer goes on to say Facebook is also like an “airplane,” a “dance floor,” and “basketball.” Also like a “doorbell.” Why not sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles?
Watching brings on a case of cognitive dissonance. It’s like an exercise for ad students, taken to the most ridiculous limits of meaninglessness. Or perhaps it’s the kind of treatise only a prodigious stoner could muster, or love.
Okay, I do get it -- the spot celebrates Facebook's ability to serve as a forum, a gathering place, a source of new ideas and shared joy of discovery. But its out-there analogies and aggressive pre-techiness are not only disingenuous, but the antithesis of what people want to hear about Facebook.
Are the creatives trying to show some morally pure agrarian society, where there is no technology? We see people reading newspapers (accent on paper) and clothbound books. Kids play in the street. The only phone shown is a “Mad Men”-era desk number with a rotary dial!
What’s the point of all this? Pepperidge Farm remembers? Suggesting nostalgia for a time before we had to worry about privacy issues and getting our personal information sold off to the highest bidder?
This spot builds to a truly woo-woo statement about how we are not alone in the universe. Indeed, in the spot, children play face to face.
But the reality of Facebook is that it offers the illusion of connectedness to those who are indeed alone. Really, have you ever gotten an invitation to “come over and Facebook”?
The chair thing seems like an immense cover-up. Why doesn’t the spot show the site, and some of the employees behind it, or how users have successfully championed social causes through it? Or tell us what’s in the works? At the very least, it could acknowledge how people really use Facebook: by accessing it through their smartphones or tapping away at their laptops.
Instead, this is infuriatingly non-transparent. How indifferent can the company be to a loyal user’s intelligence?
It makes me want to talk -- or not just talk, work up a tirade -- at a chair.
MediaPost Editor-At-Large Barbara Lippert (email@example.com) covers the intersection of pop culture, advertising, and marketing. Lippert was for many years the award-winning author of the Adweek Critique, and speaks and appears on TV as an expert on advertising imagery.